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ICOSR 2017: The Origins and Effects of Social Cognition Deficits in Schizophrenia

12 May 2017

As part of our ongoing coverage of the 2017 International Congress on Schizophrenia Research (ICOSR), held March 25-28 in San Diego, we bring you session summaries from some of the participants in the Young Investigator program. We are, as always, grateful for the gracious assistance of YI program directors Laura Rowland and Scott Sponheim, as well as Michelle Tidwell of the ICOSR staff. For this report, we thank Sonia Bansal of the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center.


Social cognition skills such as social stimuli processing, drawing inferences about others’ mental states, and engaging in social interactions allow us to interact with other humans. In recent years, there has been growing evidence of social cognitive impairments in people with schizophrenia, and of these being the main determinant of functional outcome (see SRF webinar). This understanding could be used as a guide in developing new pharmacological and psychological treatments (see SRF conference news). In a session on Sunday morning, March 26, various researchers presented work on the underlying factors of social cognitive impairment and its pathway to social dysfunction.

In the first talk, Neeltje van Haren of the University Medical Center Utrecht presented work on mental representation of emotional faces in schizophrenia. In her study, a data-driven psychophysical reverse correlation image classification (RCIC) was used to investigate and reconstruct the mental representation of three constructs probed (untrustworthy, neutral, and trustworthy) as expressed on noisy images of faces. A visual inspection of the group-level visualizations of these three constructs and the correlations among these visualizations revealed that the internal representation of these constructs is less expressive in patients with schizophrenia (N = 11) when compared to controls (N = 9). The successful use of RCIC in investigation of processing of social stimuli with a relatively small sample size opens up the prospect of further use of such tasks as sensitive assays of emotion-processing deficits in schizophrenia.

Laura Hieber of Vanderbilt University then presented her data showing that social distress via loneliness was associated with false detection of biological motion in random noise in schizophrenia. In her study, it was hypothesized that in susceptible individuals, prolonged social isolation could impair social perception and social cognition. In order to investigate the effects of social isolation on misperception of social stimuli in the schizophrenia spectrum, they used the Cyberball game to induce a feeling of social exclusion and examined the effects of an acute (10 min) social isolation manipulation in healthy college populations. They also assessed performance on a biological perception task in relation to schizotypy and subjective experience of loneliness, as it has been shown that schizophrenia patients tend to falsely “detect” social meaning in randomness in biological motion perception studies. They also probed the relationship among loneliness, social isolation, and detection of biological motion in patients with schizophrenia and matched controls. The researchers observed that loneliness was associated with false detection of biological motion in random noise in schizophrenia, suggesting that extended social isolation could adversely affect social cognitive processes.

This was followed by a talk by Junghee Lee of the University of California Los Angeles, who described the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine one aspect of social preference, social reward, and its neural correlates in schizophrenia. A one-armed bandit task was administered in the scanner, and at each trial, two slot machines appeared. Patients were instructed to choose the slot machine that would give them the optimal outcome. Faces showing happy, angry, or neutral emotional expressions were displayed for social reward, and an image of a dollar bill or a dollar bill crossed out was used for the non-social reward. The results showed that, when processing social reward versus non-social reward, people with schizophrenia have dampened neural activation in the ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This indicates that the neural circuits for reward processing of schizophrenia patients are not sensitive to social reward, suggesting abnormal neural processes associated with disrupted social preference in schizophrenia.

Finally, Eric Granholm of the University of California, San Diego, presented work on inquiry into whether associations between cognitive abilities and social competence were moderated by asocial beliefs. Outcome measures included the MATRICS battery and the Delis-Kaplan Executive Function System to assess neurocognitive function, and the Hinting Task, in which the intentions of others are interpreted in 10 auditory vignettes of social interactions, to assess social cognition. In addition, social disinterest attitudes were assessed using a self-report subscale of the revised social anhedonia scale. It was found that asocial beliefs did not moderate cognitive abilities and everyday functioning, only social competence. Additionally, defeatist performance attitudes did not moderate associations between cognitive abilities and either everyday functioning or social competence. This indicated that different types of dysfunctional beliefs might selectively impact different types of functioning.

These data suggest that social cognitive impairments are less likely to impact the social competence of people with schizophrenia with greater interest in socializing. They also highlight the importance of targeting dysfunctional attitudes in treatment, and the specificity of these findings points to which beliefs and individuals to target.

To wrap up this multi-method and cross-conceptual session, Michael F. Green of the University of California, Los Angeles, discussed the individual presentations within the realm of general social cognitive processes and social functioning in schizophrenia, and highlighted the importance of such work to determine the areas of impaired function and distinguish them from intact function, as these have important implications for the development of treatments.